Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Fans club together to claim fair share

 Source: BBC

 When people knock at my door, it is usually because they want me to give them money. Nothing wrong with that - they are nearly always polite - but it would be nice if it was the other way around for once.

Sadly, that is unlikely as I don't think any of my ancestors lived in south-east London a century ago. If they had, there is a chance they might have taken a £1 gamble on a new company called Arsenal Football Club Limited.

Pressing debts had seen its predecessor go bust in 1910 but this firm, whose only product was Woolwich Arsenal, seemed to have more get-up-and-go about it. So much get-up-and-go, in fact, that three years later it moved to north London, dropped the "Woolwich" and became a football giant.

A century later, many of those shares, of which 1,280 were issued, have been forgotten about or lost. But they have not stopped growing in value. That £1 punt is now worth almost £90,000, which is why some fortunate people have been getting knocks on the door from private investigators with good news.

They will expect a commission for their efforts but the most likely purchaser of your newly reissued shares will be somebody a bit like your Woolwich Arsenal-supporting forebear: a regular fan who wants a stake in their club.

Except it will not just be one fan. It will be hundreds of them.

The Arsenal Fanshare scheme is one of those ideas that seems so simple you wonder why it has taken so long to come up with it. And while there are elements of it unique to Arsenal, the general idea could become a template for all future relations between clubs and their supporters.

Launched last August by the Arsenal Supporters' Trust (AST), Fanshare has more than 1,600 members who have invested over £350,000 in Arsenal shares.

The genius of Fanshare is that it made a virtue out of the biggest obstacle AST faced to achieving its goal of being a critical friend to the club. That obstacle was the runaway price of the shares.

Currently trading at £11,200, Arsenal's stock has been rising ever since English football's earning power changed forever with the advent of the Premier League in 1992. That was one year after Arsenal performed a 1-for-8 share split, making a few lucky people with south London links a nice profit.

But that profit started to become potentially life-changing a few years ago when Arsenal became the focus of a bidding war between an American sports magnate called Stan Kroenke and an Uzbek oligarch named Alisher Usmanov.

With those two snapping up shares - and only 62,219 of them in circulation anyway - AST had a tough time converting good intentions into actual power. Prior to Fanshare, AST had gained three Arsenal shares in eight years.

And then came the light-bulb moment: let's really club together, like a racing syndicate, and buy shares of shares.

A "Fanshare" is a 100th of an actual share, so approximately £110. Members of the scheme, having paid a £20 membership fee, can invest between £10 and £1,000 a month.

Once they have enough in their account, they can buy a Fanshare, bringing them direct ownership of a stake in Arsenal, the chance to attend the Arsenal AGM (100 Fanshare members went to October's), quarterly financial information from the club and a vote on key resolutions. Buy 100 Fanshares, equivalent to a full share, and you are given full voting rights and a guaranteed AGM place.

I should probably make it clear at this stage that Arsenal's fans are not the first to come up with a share-save plan. Rangers supporters, to give just one example, definitely got there before them. But unlike Arsenal's Fanshare, the GerSave scheme has not really delivered yet. There is one crucial reason for that: there is no relationship between the fans at Ibrox and the club's ownership.

Run by the Rangers Supporters Trust, there are 500 GerSave members with almost £70,000 in the bank. But until club owner David Murray relinquishes control of the Glasgow side, the fans do not want to prop up his regime.

This brings me back to what is so special about Arsenal's Fanshare. It has been done with the full support of the club's board - and even the major shareholders not on the board. AST has been able to convince everybody that a bigger say for "real fans" does not mean a storming of the barricades.

It is this attitude that has attracted praise for Arsenal and its Fanshare from interested onlookers, such as the Sports Minister Hugh Robertson and Uefa chief Michel Platini.

It is also why MPs sitting on the parliamentary select committee hearings into football governance went to the Emirates last week for their first fact-finding mission.

They met AST representatives, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and chief executive Ivan Gazidis, wanting to know how other teams could replicate this consensual approach - no easy task when so many club boards seem to be at war with their fans.

As for the parliamentary select committee hearings, they start with a bang on Tuesday, when former Football Association chairman Lord Triesman give his opinions.

But Triesman - and Arsenal - are not the only ones with good stories to tell.

Perhaps the most interesting example of a new way of doing things for football can be found a long way from Arsenal at FC United of Manchester, the club started by disaffected fans of Manchester United.

FC United have shared Bury's Gigg Lane ground since their formation in the wake of the controversial arrival of the Glazers at Old Trafford in 2005. And the last six years have seen steady growth for a club many thought was a protest movement that would fizzle out.

With average gates of 2,000, the semi-professional team want to move to a home of their own in Newton Heath, the birthplace of Manchester United.

The plan is to build a £3.5m community sports venue, part-funded by grants from the local authorities, Football Foundation and Sport England, with £2m coming from the club's own coffers and a Community Share Scheme. The target is to raise £1.5m by 28 February. They are nearly there.

Members of the club, which is run as a co-operative, have invested sums between £200 and £20,000 in the new ground. The money is ring-fenced for three years but, after that, 10% of the pot can be repaid a year, enabling fans to get their money back should they need it. They could also earn small dividend payments.

FC United's general manager Andy Walsh told me the Community Share Scheme was the most exciting project they had attempted so far and thinks it could be spun out across the leagues.

As he pointed out, if FC United can raise £1.5m from a committed fan-base of 2,000, what could a team with gates of 10,000 or more achieve? More wholly supporter-owned clubs should be possible.

So there are positive signs of football fans organising themselves to be heard and respected at both ends of the spectrum. This is heartening news if lessons from recent high-profile financial failures are to be learned.

Football clubs are far more than just the current squad plus fixtures and fittings. They are assets to nurture and treasure, because one day, a 100 years down the line, they could be something really special to an entirely new generation of custodians.

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Matt Slater | 12:57 UK time, Monday, 7 February 2011